What Makes a Dog Breed?
Photo Souce: Max Pixel
Whenever one asks to pet a dog, one of the first questions after asking for the dog’s name, is “What kind of dog is it?” Dog breeds have been a part of our lives and how we think about dogs. Even owners of mixed breeds will often send in DNA tests to find out what kind of purebreds make up their furry friend. How is it determined what a breed is and isn’t? How are specific groupings and characteristics of dogs determined?
People have had dogs as companions for at least 19,000 years(Live Science). We domesticated dogs even before domesticating crops and livestock (The Atlantic). It is not completely clear how distinct dog breeds came about, but one theory indicates that people started domesticating dogs on the Eurasian continent in the East and West simultaneously, and those separate groups started to breed once the human settlers met and interacted. Part of the reason that dogs have been developed into so many varieties is that we have historically used dogs for a variety of activities, including pest control, herding, hunting, and guarding (Live Science). As people selected for different traits, dogs breeds became differentiated.
We tend to group dogs based off of their intended use, such as herding, working, or hunting. However, genetically and temperamentally, the intended job is the only thing breeds in those groups have in common (Minute Earth). In a Swedish study, it was found that dog personality traits (divided into playfulness, curiosity, sociability, and aggression) were not divided between breed groups. In fact, certain dogs shared similar traits with other dogs across breed groups. For instance, labradors (hunting dogs) share more similarities with boxers (working dogs) than their respective breeding group (like a golden retriever).
Scientists have a new way of defining and separating out dog groups through the dog genome, rather than simply defining dogs by their purpose. At the National Human Genome Research Institute, geneticists examined the genetic data of 1,346 dogs making up 161 breeds (Sci News). The breed histories came from all of the world—every continent except for Antarctica. Using genetic signatures, scientists could deduce the genetic histories. The researchers found that there were 23 different clades, or genetic groups of dogs. For instance, while most popular dogs were found to originate from Europe, there is a certain subset of dogs that seemed to have descended from the "New World Dog," an ancient canine subspecies that came with the original Native Americans across the Bering Strait (there have been theories about this sort of "missing link" for American dogs, but this is the first time there has been evidence). Poodles make up their own clade, while American rat terriers genetically descend from the American terrier group.
While there are genetic similarities in dog groups, how do we define breeds? We often look to organizations such as the American Kennel Club (AKC), the British Kennel Club, and the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI). The AKC currently has 190 dog breeds registered, the British Kennel Club recognizes 218 breeds, and the FCI recognizes 350. There are plenty of other kennel clubs around the world, such as the Nordic Kennel Club covering Scandanavia, that also has its own set of recognized breeds. Each organization has its own specific set of certifications to let a dog breed into their club. For the American Kennel club, there must be enough interest in the dog, enough states that have these dogs, enough of these dogs in existence, and it must already meet breeding standards (the dog breed has to be sustainable such that they don’t have debilitating health conditions right out of the gate). A potential dog breed first competes in the “Miscellaneous Class” in dog shows, and after one to three years, the breed can be formally submitted to the American Kennel Club board review (AKC). All kennel clubs acknowledge that they do not have every breed in their registry—the American Kennel Club notes that they are missing about 400 breeds that other organizations have. However, national kennel clubs only register breeds that have enough popularity and traction in their specific country.
Dogs are an important and intrinsic part of human history. Domesticated from the wolf, even before farming and livestock, they have helped hunt with us, guard us, and serve as loyal companions. We have also bred them for specific tasks, which gives way to new breeds of dogs. Different kennel clubs and federations have their own rules and regulations on what is an officially recognized dog breed. However, dog lovers everywhere know that, no matter what kind of dog it is, they are a beloved part of our family. We play with them, hang out with them, and care for them. As fun as it is to group them up, I think it can be agreed upon that dogs are simply awesome.